There are not many towns that can boast of dedicated residents simultaneously promoting diversity, recreation, and education for more than 50 years. Thanks to resident Abe Rojas, Turlock has that legacy.
Rojas was originally born in Hughson after his parents migrated from Mexico City, Mexico to El Paso, Texas before settling down in Turlock in 1940. Rojas attended Hawthorne Elementary School, Turlock High School, Modesto Junior College, Cal Poly Pomona, and California State University, Stanislaus.
Rojas was employed under the Parks and Recreation program before finally securing as seat as the director for 25 years. He retired from the City of Turlock in 1993, but still remained active as a volunteer in various organizations in neighborhood schools, county committees, Turlock’s Chamber of Commerce, and the CSUS athletic programs. In 2011, he was inducted into the CSUS Hall of Fame for his philanthropy.
He served 13 years as trustee for the Turlock Join Union High School District, and is currently in his 17th year on the Yosemite Community College District Board of Trustees, serving as president this year.
Rojas was raised by a single mother after his father’s death at age 8, and was one of the few Hispanic families in Turlock.
He utilized his past to help kids in future predicaments in the educational field. When he ran for the Turlock Unified School District board in 1982 for the 9-12 grades, he also decided to help his wife at Osborn Elementary and Crowell Elementary with troubled students. As a child of a single parent, he could relate his experiences with their own.
“There were always teachers asking me if I would go and talk to kids of parents who were destitute, weren’t performing well, or (had problems). They would recruit me to go. I learned a lot of things I already knew about single parent families. Now they are becoming the norm. I would visit a lot of the homes,” Rojas said. “Because I knew all the teachers ..., I learned a lot of things that were occurring. That kind of got me involved. Then I became an advocate because people knew me and what I did.”
In 1969, Rojas became more involved as the director of Parks and Recreation Department. He even implemented a strong dress code to positively influence the children.
“I was almost a surrogate parent you might say. I would get a lot of low-income families and explain to them how I expected they should dress. When you come here, you work for me, you dress the way I want you to dress. There is a dress code here, and it’s very simple. I think the parents of the kids at that time were very appreciative of what I did,” he said.
Rojas went on to be involved in youth sports as a basketball referee, softball umpire, coach and announcer at local football games. He also found time to play slow pitch senior softball once a week. A field was named after him at the Turlock Regional Sports Complex in honor of his commitment to local sports.
Though Rojas is still interested in youthful affairs, he now spends his time fighting budget cuts as a trustee for the Yosemite Community College District. Over the last seven years, approximately $7 million dollars has been lost, cutting close to 300 course offerings for students, and eliminating 11 teaching positions. Multimedia services, such as journalism, television and film, and art were among the first to be cut back, as well as the new dentistry program at Modesto Junior College.
As the economy took a downward spiral in education, the only salvation was to pass Prop 30, a sales and income tax initiative that allocates temporary tax revenues by 89 percent to k-12 schools and 11 percent to community colleges.
“It was very painful. We had to have a reduction. Our district was prudent in cutting back, saving money. We were prudent enough to set money aside and put it in a contingency fund so that if Prop 30 didn’t pass, we would be able to hold our head above water for a little bit,” said Rojas.
If Prop 30 hadn’t passed, Rojas estimated that another 300 course units would have had to cut. The college district established committees through the Chancellor's Office so that every division was offering money to give back. There were reductions in salaries and ideas on how to save $3 million dollars. Rojas hoped that if the staff and faculty lobbied hard for Prop 30, it would act as a partisan approach.
“With Prop 30 passing, it saved us,” said Rojas. “Those positions that are eliminated are difficult. I have a remorseful feeling that those are people with families and people that have to pay their rent and survive. You get to meet a lot of people and it becomes personal,” Rojas said.
In the midst of the tough budget cuts, Rojas said he and the rest of the trustees are acting to surpass accreditation standards for the community colleges. It is his wish to make the regional area flourish economically and provide a quality education and lifestyle.
“Change in our area is affecting everybody. We are trying to improve our situation,” said Rojas. “Students are the main area of our concern. We want to do what is best for our students.”